N.E.R.D.’s ‘In Search Of…’ Blurred Genre Lines and Broadened Musical Borders
The early 2000s were dominated by pristine pop sounds, and no one was more musically dominant than hitmaking production duo the Neptunes.
Comprised of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, the pair had come to prominence during the late '90s after scoring hit singles for the likes of Ma$e, Noreaga, The L.O.X., and Kelis; and they would take a substantial leap in terms of notoriety by the end of 2000, racking up production credits on some of the biggest records of the year. Beenie Man ("Girls Dem Sugar"), Ludacris ("Southern Hospitality"), and Mystikal ("Shake Ya Ass") were among the beneficiaries of the Neptunes' midas touch, and the duo would find themselves in high demand headed into 2001.
In addition to dominating the Billboard charts, 2001 would mark the Neptunes' introduction of N.E.R.D., a funk-rock band Pharrell and Chad had formed in high school. An acronym for "No One Ever Really Dies," N.E.R.D. would be the foundation on which the Neptunes would be built on, as it would provide an early outlet for the trio to express their artistic quirks prior to their professional foray into music.
In a 2003 interview with Sound & Recording, Chad Hugo, who met Pharrell while the two were in 7th grade, reflected on their early days. "Pharrell used to write songs back then, and we would record them with the equipment we had, the reclusive producer shares. "We were also part of the marching band in high school. Pharrell's part was the snare drum and I was the conductor of the marching band. During the breaks between classes, someone would always play the drums while another person rapped."
N.E.R.D.'s foundation had been set, but the band's backbone and the glue that held it all together would be Sheldon "Shay" Haley, a high school classmate who would join Pharrell and Chad as the crew's third member. "I was a slacker in school," Haley, the band's most enigmatic member, recalled in a 2004 MCM documentary about the group. "I used to get into a lot of trouble growing up as a teenager, just running with the wrong crowd. And then I got into music, I've always been heavily influenced by music, and me and Pharrell had a lot of the same interests in music."
With N.E.R.D. now a unit, the trio would begin making waves at local talent shows, catching the eye of a talent scout for producer Teddy Riley, who would sign N.E.R.D. when they were fresh out of high school. But Riley approached the group about contributing songs to his other projects, and suddenly Pharrell and Chad's focus shifted to production. And the Neptunes were born. Over the course of the next decade, the Neptunes would gradually step outside of Riley's shadow and build a reputation as reliable producers in their own right; hitting it big with Noreaga's hit single "Super Thug," which would make the duo the most sought-after hitmakers in hip-hop.
Despite initially finding success in hip-hop and R&B, the Neptunes experimented with various sounds and were comfortable venturing into other genres. In 1999, the duo would decide to revive N.E.R.D., bringing Shay Haley back into the fold and making an appearance on R&B singer Kelis' Neptunes-produced debut album, Kaleidoscope, which would lay the groundwork for N.E.R.D.'s debut album, In Search Of... Named after the Leonard Nimoy-hosted TV series of the same name, the album was the band's attempt to create a "new sound of hip-hop mixed with rock" echoing earlier music by acts like Run D.M.C. And it was driven by an open-minded ethos.
Said the Neptunes at the time: "In Search Of... seems like a bland title, but for us, it's In search of love. In search of happiness. In search of smiling. In search of that bitch with the big ass. In search of the answer to why my brother smokes crack. It's all of that; it's about being open."
Originally released on August 6, 2001, in the U.K. only, In Search Of... would fly under the radar stateside, as N.E.R.D. decided to hold back on a U.S. release in an attempt to rework and retool the album.
The European version of the album saw N.E.R.D. relying heavily on the digital production techniques employed on Neptunes productions, which led to what many critics perceived as a lack of authenticity in regards to the project itself. In response, the band went back to the drawing board, bringing in 1960s-style power pop band Spymob to provide live instrumentation to bolster the sounds on In Search Of... and give the album a more hearty feel. After making additional edits to the album, including dropping the skits and the intro from the original version of the album, N.E.R.D. released In Search Of... in the U.S. on March 12, 2002.
Twelve songs featuring various guest appearances from N.E.R.D.'s Star Trak family, In Search Of... embodies all that the Neptunes are about as creatives and personalities. Lead single "Lap Dance" sees Pharrell taking center stage, delivering a performance that would foreshadow his eventual star turn. "I'm an outlaw, quick on the draw/Somethin' you've never seen before," the usually cherubic hitmakers growls over pounding drums and electric guitar riffs, before delivering shrieking vocals on the track's bridge. Murder Inc Records femme fatale Vita tackles the hook, purring "Ooh, baby, you want me?/Well, you can get this lap dance here for free," while fellow costar Lee Harvey drops a stellar closing verse, rhyming "When you think of Harvey, think of a Harley/Blue denim, spiked wrists and 'Crombie/Slap-screws and tattoos, that's all me/Two blondes, both arms, feelin' like Fonzie," rounding out the proceedings effectively.
"Lap Dance" may be an intense opening salvo, but N.E.R.D. quickly lighten the mood on In Search Of... with "Things Are Getting Better," the first of a slew of breezy compositions on the album. Shae, who's presence is felt largely through backing vocals, spits on this outing, kicking game with lines like "Hey little girl wit the tattoo thigh/Baby you look like a slice of pie/Hope my style don't cause you fear/Matter of fact baby, where you goin' from here?" adding his own wrinkle to one of the early highlights on In Search Of...
"'Tape You' is an undeniable synth-laden offering that sees Pharrell in the spotlight once again. Although the songwriting borders on cheesy, the delivery and hypnotic instrumental makes it one of the premier cuts on the album. "Thinking about the time we share/And how I wasn't there, it hurts me/These people overwork me,"Pharrell croons on "Run to the Sun," another mid-tempo affair from In Search Of... that touches on romance and courtship while keeps things lighthearted.
"Am I High," which features an appearance from Malice of the Clipse, continues N.E.R.D.'s winning-streak, but In Search Of... also contains moments of introspect and cautionary tales that helps round out the album. "Provider," which is powered by an acoustic guitar and delicate snare drums, is a cautionary tale centered around the drug trade and contains some of the stronger songwriting on In Search Of..."Woke up, I had the same clothes on I had on last night, I must have passed out/And cash is just like the clothes I worn yesterday/We are broke, I gotta get my ass out," Pharrell crowns on this rootsy number. "Bobby James" cuts to the core; the story of a mentally and physically abused kid who runs away from home and uses drugs in an attempt to ease the pain of his present and past.
In Search Of... may run the gamut of emotions, but N.E.R.D. as a band are at their best when they're at their most boisterous, as on "Rock Star," the album's second single and one of N.E.R.D.'s signature songs. "You can't be me, I'm a rockstar/I'm rhyming on the top of a cop car/I'm a rebel and my .44 pops far," Pharrell barks through the audio feedback, amid thunderous drums and roaring guitars.
Standout records are aplenty, however, In Search Of... is not without blemish and includes a few clunkers that would've been better left on the cutting-room floor, "Brain" and "Truth or Dare" being among them.
In contrast with many of the musical acts that the Neptunes produced for, N.E.R.D. would fail to set the world, or charts, on fire with In Search Of..., as the album would peak at No. 56 on the Billboard 200 and fail to produce a hit single, but would reach gold certification, a testament to their cult following. In Search Of... would also play a big part in helping Pharrell transition from produer to charismatic budding star on par with many of the artists with whom he'd worked. Pharrell would become a cultural ambassador of sorts for streetwear and skateboard culture; noted for his innate fashion sense in music videos, helping popularize the trucker hat, as well as brands like Bape, both of which would become staples in hip-hop culture.
Building off of the momentum of In Search Of..., the Neptunes would release a compilation titled The Neptunes Present... Clones, which included the Jay Z-assisted Pharrell single "Frontin'," which would peak at No. 5 on the Hot 100 and establish him as a viable artist outside of the Neptunes and N.E.R.D. construct. Releasing three additional albums, N.E.R.D. have continued to live on in spirit and continue to perform, but their debut is undoubtedly their definitive work to date. 15 years after its release, In Search Of... is noted for opening the door for other spontaneous genre-bending endeavors from artists ranging from Kanye West (808's & Heartbreak) to Childish Gambino (Awaken, My Love), and remains one of the more influential records of the 21st century.